A Tale of Three Outfielders

I suppose this isn’t really a tale.  Rather, it’s what I hope you come to this little corner of the interwebs for- stats about baseball players.  More specifically stats about Ken Griffey, Jr., Larry Walker, and Jim Edmonds.

Each of the above-named gentlemen was on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot.  They achieved… let’s say… various levels of success on that ballot.  But were they good at baseball?

Ken Griffey, Jr. was.  Over his long career, he hit .284/.370/.538.  Baseball Reference’s OPS+ tells us that’s 36 percent better than the average major leaguer, adjusted for era and park factors.

Larry Walker was pretty good too. He hit .313/.400/.565.  That’s 41 percent better than the average major leaguer, adjusted for era and park factors.

Jim Edmonds?  Hey, he was pretty solid himself.  .284/.376/.527.  That’s 32 percent better than average.

So far, these guys look fairly similar, but Larry Walker’s numbers are fake, right?  He took advantage of the crazy altitude at Coors Field and launched homers and doubles that would have been outs in other parks.  The outfielders played so deep that his soft fly balls fell for extra singles, right?  Sure, OPS+ adjusts for park factors, but Walker took advantage of Coors better than anyone else in the park’s history, so OPS+ doesn’t know how to evaluate him.  Surely, Griffey was better.  Right?

Let’s pretend these guys never played a home game.

Griffey hit .272/.355/.505 on the road.

Walker hit .278/.370/.495 on the road.

Edmonds hit .282/.371/.518 on the road.

Umm…  What was I saying about Walker?

As it turns out, Edmonds was, by a narrow margin, the best hitter on the road.  Walker lines up next, with virtually the same OBP but a little less pop.  Let’s remember that Walker, for almost ten seasons, had to take the swing he’d tailored for Denver’s altitude on the road to parks where breaking balls actually break.  Meanwhile, Griffey and Edmonds got to play some of those road games at Coors during their NL years.

Give the home games back, adjust for park factors, and Walker was the best hitter of the three, at least on a rate basis.  But hitting isn’t all of baseball, right?  Griffey and Edmonds were all over Sportscenter for their acrobatic catches.  Walker was just a right fielder.  Let’s look at their defensive numbers.

Baseball reference tells us that Griffey was 3 runs better than the average center fielder over the course of his career.  This isn’t reflective of his greatness, since he earned 84 runs through 2000 and then gave 81 of them back with below-average defense at the end of his career.

Edmonds gets credit for 37 runs above average.  Like Griffey, he was a great young centerfielder, accumulating 56 runs through age 35 before giving 19 back as an old man.

Walker, as a rightfielder, has to clear a higher bar.  He does.  He was worth 94 runs above the average rightfielder for his career.  That’s 101 through age 35 and -7 thereafter.

Baseball Reference’s positional adjustment evens things out a bit, and rightfully so, as it’s harder to be better than the average centerfielder than to exceed expectations in right.  Here’s Rfield+Rpos, which reflects the relative difficulty of positions played throughout their careers:

Griffey 16

Walker 19

Edmonds 63

Maybe Edmonds was the best of the bunch.  But then, Griffey was such an athlete.  He stole 20 bases a couple times, and almost 200 for his career.  Let’s look at Baserunning Runs:

Griffey had 16.  As with defense, this is a skill that fades with age. He was +22 in Seattle and -6 thereafter.

Edmonds had -11.  He was never a great baserunner.

Walker had 40.  Whoa.  Walker stole 230 bases at a 75% success rate.  He was among the best in the game at taking the extra base, enough so that he was basically as valuable on the basepaths as teammate and two-time 50-steal man Delino DeShields.

 

Let’s review what we’ve learned about these three contemporary outfielders.  On a rate basis, Walker was the best hitter of the three, though Edmonds was slightly better in road games.  Edmonds was the best fielder of the three, though Walker was the best compared to his positional peers.  Walker was by far the best baserunner.

Did the Hall of Fame voters agree?  Out of 440 voters,

437 voted for Griffey.  He’ll give a speech in Cooperstown this summer.

68 voted for Walker.  He’ll get four more years on the ballot.

11 voted for Edmonds.  Eleven.  He’s off the ballot.  For good.

 

I’ve conveniently overlooked some big things here.  Griffey played 2,671 games.  Edmonds played 2,011, while Walker played just 1,988.  Because of the extra plate appearances, Griffey’s 36 percent above-average hitting translates to 440 batting runs above average.  Walker had 420.  Edmonds had 303.

Furthermore, Griffey had a long decline phase.  If we look at total wins above average for their careers, Walker led the trio at 48.2, to Griffey’s 46.5 and Edmonds’s 34.9.  However, if we cut out everything that happened after age 35, Griffey’s back up to 52.4, to Walker’s 42.5 and Edmonds’s 35.9.  Walker deserves credit for putting up good numbers into his late thirties, but Griffey’s Hall of Fame case should be based on the years in which he really was the greatest of these three guys.

Why did practically every voter find room on a crowded ballot for Griffey, while so few seemed to notice the statistical clones sharing ballot space with The Kid?

Well, there’s a lot to like about Griffey.  The perfect lefty swing, the smile, the backwards hat, the back-to-back jacks he and his dad hit… the list goes on.  But there’s also timing.  By the time he could legally drink, Griffey had 299 big-league hits, 38 homers, and (not that we knew it then) 8.4 WAR.  Walker played his first full season at 23; Edmonds at 25.

Throughout his twenties, Griffey kept smiling, kept making impressive catches, and kept hitting.  He had 398 homers before he turned 30.  Walker had 153.  Edmonds had 121.

After he turned 30, Griffey was a different player.  He added another 232 homers, but his all-around value dropped.  He was worth just 12.3 WAR after 30, to Walker’s 45.5 and Edmonds’s 39.9.  By then, though, his ticket was punched.

As far as I know, there’s no significant bias in Hall of Fame voting in favor of great young players over great old players.  Griffey isn’t viewed as better than Walker and Edmonds because he did his best work as a young man.  This is less about how these three men aged and more about how baseball aged.  Griffey was great when baseball was pure.  Before the strike, there was Griffey popping 45 homers as a 23-year-old rising star.  Before McGwire and Sosa and the great home run chase, there was Griffey hitting 56 homers as a 27-year-old megastar.  Nobody questioned Griffey’s greatness.  We embraced it.  The Mariners were relevant.  Heck, baseball was relevant because Ken Griffey, Jr. was a star.

Walker did his best work in Colorado from 1997 to ’99.  ’97 was the same year Griffey first hit 56 homers (he did it again in ’98).  Fans understood Griffey’s homers.  They believed in them.  Walker’s 49 homers, and his .366 batting average?  They must have been a function of this crazy new field a mile above sea level.  Walker had been good for a while, but he wasn’t a superstar.  Kids didn’t wear their hats the way Larry Walker did.  By the time Walker hit an unfathomable .379/.458/.710 in 1999, McGwire had hit 70 homers.  Baseball had changed.  Fans had been through elated and were moving toward jaded.  What did these numbers even mean?  There must have been some explanation besides Larry Walker being a great hitter.  And in altitude, there was a convenient one.  So we looked the other way.

Edmonds had his best years in St. Louis from 2000 to 2004.  By now, Barry Bonds had hit 73 home runs in one year and batted .370 in another.  Rumors of steroids were everywhere.  Nothing was real anymore.  All big numbers needed asterisks.  And there were a lot of big numbers.  Who had time to worship Jim Edmonds?

Ken Griffey, Jr. was a superstar, an icon, a no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famer.  He deserved every one of his 437 votes and he deserves to make a speech in Cooperstown this summer.

I promised stats, so let’s finish with this one:

WAR/150 Games Played

Griffey 4.69

Walker 5.48

Edmonds 4.50

On a rate basis, Jim Edmonds was nearly as good as Griffey.  Larry Walker was better.  Neither played as much baseball as Griffey, and neither soared quite as high at his peak.  A Hall of Fame with Walker and Edmonds and no Griffey would be silly.  But I might say the same about a Hall of Fame with Griffey and no Walker or Edmonds.  Yet it looks like that’s where we’re headed.

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A Hall of Fame Ballot for the BBA

The long-dormant Baseball Bloggers Alliance is building steam again and reestablishing its Hall of Fame vote, after skipping this season’s player awards.  As it seems most Hall of Fame simulators do, the BBA continues to mimic the and counterintuitive and often harmful rules the real Hall puts on the BBWAA, limiting ballots to ten names even at a time when the ballot includes far more candidates who are qualified, if not laughably overqualified, by the Hall’s established standards.

It would be depressing to spend thousands of words rehashing the merits of players who have been snubbed again and again this decade, so I’ll instead list the players worth debating, along with their Hall Ratings from Hall of Stats (where 100 represents a borderline player and higher is better), and a quick “yes” or “no” indicating whether I think they belong in the Hall of Fame, regardless of the 10-name cap.  Then I’ll whittle the list down to the ten for whom I actually voted earlier today.

Barry Bonds (359) Yes

Roger Clemens (291) Yes

Ken Griffey, Jr. (171) Yes

Curt Schilling (171) Yes

Jeff Bagwell (162) Yes

Mike Mussina (162) Yes

Larry Walker (150) Yes

Mike Piazza (146) Yes

Alan Trammell (141) Yes

Edgar Martinez (134) Yes

Tim Raines (127) Yes

Mark McGwire (123) Yes

Jim Edmonds (120) Yes

Sammy Sosa (115) Yes

Gary Sheffield (114) Yes

Jeff Kent (101) No

Fred McGriff (92) No

Nomar Garciaparra (90) No

Jason Kendall (86) No

Troy Glaus (67) No

Billy Wagner (65) Yes

Trevor Hoffman (62) Yes

Lee Smith (62) No

Of the 23 candidates who wouldn’t totally embarrass the Hall of Fame, I support the candidacies of 17.  As I’ve written before, Sheffield and Kent constitute borderline-type players for me.  I wouldn’t be offended by a Hall without Sheffield or by one with Kent, but a line has to be drawn somewhere, so Kent gets slashed.

I should also note that I’m not completely sure how the Hall of Fame should treat relief pitchers, but that Hoffman always felt like a Hall of Famer to me and his numbers are far better than those of Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers, and Wagner was clearly a better pitcher than Hoffman. Wagner’s 2.73 career FIP bests every modern pitcher, including Mariano Rivera, and his 187 ERA+ is second only to Rivera’s 205.  Wagner’s in, while Hoffman shares borderline territory with Sheffield.

If I wanted to make cases for the guys for whom I just denied, I could cite the following comps:

Kent’s 101 Hall Rating is better than Bobby Doerr’s 97 by about the value Doerr probably gave up to World War II.  Kent was a better hitter; Doerr a better fielder, and both are probably overrated offensively due to park factors (Doerr) and era adjustments (Kent).

McGriff’s 92 Hall Rating is similar to Tony Perez’s 94.  Perez rode his position on the iconic Big Red Machine teams to the Hall of Fame, while the Braves’ postseason struggles in the ’90s may have kept McGriff out back when there was room on the ballot for those who liked his 493 home runs.

Nomar Garciaparra has the same Hall Rating as Joe Sewell, another short-career shortstop who was a tough out in his prime.  I wonder if Nomar will ever benefit from a future Veterans Committee as generous as the one that elected Sewell in 1977.

Jason Kendall never really felt like a Hall of Famer, but he had a better Hall Rating than Roy Campanella.  Campy’s clearly not a fair comp, as he missed time on both ends of his career, so I’ll note that Rick Ferrell is somehow in the Hall of Fame with a 52 Hall Rating.  Kendall wouldn’t be one of the 10 worst Hall of Famers.

I really only named Troy Glaus above because his Hall Rating was better than the two relievers whose candidacies I support, but his 67 is actually higher than that of three Hall of Fame third basemen- George Kell (65), Pie Traynor (60), and Freddie Lindstrom (50).  Glaus should obviously line up behind Graig Nettles, Ken Boyer, Sal Bando, and several other third basemen, but with the position so underrepresented in the Hall, his inclusion wouldn’t be quite as silly as you might think.

Lee Smith has the same Hall Rating (and basically the same saves-record narrative) as a guy whose candidacy I do support, so it’s not hard to imagine a Hall of Fame with him in it.

Anyway, back to my BBA ballot.  I had to cut seven candidates for whom I’d like to vote.  Here was my logic:

  1. Sheffield, as noted above, is a borderline candidate and I don’t feel bad about cutting him.
  2. Ditto Hoffman.  I’ve seem way too many ballots with Hoffman’s name checked, but not Wagner’s, simply because he found himself in more situations in which his team had a 1-to-3-run lead in the ninth inning.  My vote for Wagner, but not Hoffman, will offset one of those ballots.
  3. Sosa is qualified, and it’s hard to accept a Hall of Fame without the guy with half of all the 60-homer seasons in baseball history, but he simply falls short of too many guys on this ballot.
  4. McGwire, with even more power than Sosa and far superior on-base skills, is a no-brainer for me, but like Sosa, he just falls short of too many of these other guys.  His run on the ballot comes to an end this year, and the BBA won’t come any closer to inducting him than the BBWAA, so this lost cause misses my ballot.  That hurts.
  5. Tim Raines is out.  Here’s a guy with an actual chance to make the Hall of Fame this year (and I think he really will next year), but he’s at-best the 11th-most qualified player on the ballot (and I’d probably vote for McGwire ahead of him as well).  I sincerely hope he gets in, and I appreciate those BBWAA voters who see his momentum and check off his name ahead of other candidates they may find more qualified, but he’s sadly short of my top ten.
  6. Roger Clemens gets the axe.  Clemens may be the greatest pitcher in baseball history.  He may also be my least favorite person in baseball history.  Of course I think he should have sailed in on the first ballot despite his legendary assholery, but if not for the extent of his sins outlined in the Mitchell report, the writers might not be as militant about keeping cheaters out of the Hall and we might not have this backlog problem today.
  7. I’m voting for Jim Edmonds instead of Ken Griffey, Jr.  I know, this is lunacy.  Griffey is more qualified than Edmonds and fellow newcomer Billy Wagner, who also makes my cut.  He was better than Martinez and Trammell, for whom I’m voting on principle because of how criminally under-supported they are.  He was an icon of my generation, a fun player to watch who seemed to be capable of anything.  All that said, I’m a little sickened by Griffey having come to represent the guy who did it the right way, as if we know for certain that he never used steroids and Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell did. He played in the same era and put up reasonably similar numbers to those guys.  He benefitted from his home park the same way Larry Walker did (Walker hit .282/.372/.501 outside of Coors Field; Griffey hit .272/.355/.505 on the road for his career).  His Hall Rating is exactly the same as Curt Schilling’s.  Of course he’s a Hall of Famer.  But so are all these guys who keep getting less than half the vote while Griffey’s flirting with unanimity.  Edmonds, on the other hand, looks like he’s going to fall short of the 5% he’d need to stay on the ballot another year.  One of the greatest defensive players I’ve ever seen also hit .284/.376/.527 for his whole career, with 393 homers and another 13 in the postseason, and we’re about to kick him to the curb?  That’s not right.

My ballot:

Bonds

Schilling

Bagwell

Mussina

Walker

Piazza

Trammell

Martinez

Edmonds

Wagner

 

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Larry Walker was Al Simmons (and other helpful comps)

This piece by Adam Darowski, published this morning at The Hardball Times, explains how similar Larry Walker was to Al Simmons, a Hall of Famer elected by the BBWAA. The Walker section ends thusly:

“Even if you don’t believe WAR adjusts enough for Coors Field or don’t fully trust Walker’s defensive numbers, Al Simmons basically represents the worst-case scenario comparison for Larry Walker. Since Simmons is one of the 100 best players in history, that means Larry Walker absolutely should be a Hall of Famer.”

What Adam notes without emphasis is that Walker’s 150 Hall Rating is actually several notches above Simmons’s 130. Between them, you’ll find names like Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson, Robin Yount, and Yogi Berra. Not exactly borderline names.

While I’m primarily stumping for Walker here, Adam makes some other eye-opening comps as well. Jeff Bagwell was Ed Delahanty (though I’d rather note that he was the third-best first baseman who debuted in the 20th century than compare him to a dinosaur). Mike Mussina was a better pitcher than Jim Palmer. Alan Trammell was Ryne Sandberg. And here’s the best comp of them all:

Curt Schilling: 216-146, .597 winning percentage, 3,116 strikeouts, 127 ERA+, 80.7 WAR, three rings
Bob Gibson: 251-174, .591 winning percentage, 3,117 strikeouts, 127 ERA+, 81.9 WAR, two rings

It’s time my generation gets some Hall of Fame love.

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Happy Birthday, Booger!

Larry Walker turns 49 today.  I took to Twitter this morning to share some birthday wishes for @cdnmooselips33.  For posterity’s sake, here they are:

Happy birthday to Larry Walker, the last guy to hit .375 in a season.

Happy birthday to Larry Walker, the only player to hit .350 on a 30 HR/30 SB season (hat tip to @theaceofspaeder).

Happy birthday to Larry Walker, whose 150 Hall of Stats Hall Rating is better than Pete, Brooks, Reggie, Yogi, Duke, Ernie, or the Big Hurt.

Happy birthday to Larry Walker, who had more WAR batting runs, fielding runs, and baserunning runs than Hall of Famer Andre Dawson.

Happy birthday to Larry Walker, who had fewer Baseball Reference WAR than 70 Hall of Famers and more WAR than the other 174.

I didn’t mention that Walker had more WAR and a higher Hall Rating than anyone else who ever played for the Rockies, and among position players who ever played for the Expos, only Pete Rose has more WAR and only Gary Carter has a higher Hall Rating. Walker had more WAR than Carter and a higher Hall Rating than Rose.

Here are a few pro-Booger nuggets from yesterday’s tweets from the aforementioned @theaceofspaeder:

Hall of Famers
Sewell .312 BA
DiMaggio .398 OBP
Aaron .555 SLG
Brett 135 OPS+
Gwynn 68.8 WAR

Larry Walker .313/.400/.565, 141 OPS+, 72.6 WAR
________________________________________

WAR:
Larry Walker 72.6
Tim Raines 69.1
Tony Gwynn 68.8*
Edgar Martinez 68.3
Duke Snider 66.5*
Andre Dawson 64.5*
Dave Winfield 63.8*

*HOF
_________________________________________

Seasons with .700+ SLG & 30+ SB

#Rockies Larry Walker 1
The other 18,661 players in history combined 0
_________________________________________

Larry Walker had a career 141 OPS+ (OPS adjusted for BALLPARK, run environment, etc.). Ken Griffey Jr. had a career 136 OPS+.
_________________________________________

And finally, a complete lists of players with more HR, more SB, and a better career batting average than Larry Walker…

.

Posted in Hall of Fame, Rockies | Tagged | 3 Comments

Rookies, Managers, and Relievers

If the Baseball Bloggers Alliance is voting on awards this season, I’m late on three out of five.  I’ve covered the best players and the best pitchers, but haven’t touched on rookies, managers, or relievers yet.

I’ll make these brief.

AL Willie Mays Award (Top Rookie)

  1. Carlos Correa, Astros
  2. Francisco Lindor, Indians
  3. Miguel Sano, Twins

Correa and Lindor are both total-package shortstops who came up well after the season started and played exactly 99 games.  Correa had the bat (.279/.345/.512 to Lindor’s .313/.353/.482), but Lindor had the glove (11.5 fielding runs above average, per fangraphs to Correa’s 1.6 below average).  Both were fast (14 steals in 18 tries for Correa; Lindor went 12 for 14), but Correa gets the edge in Baserunning Runs according to both keepers of WAR.

In a virtual toss-up, both keepers of WAR prefer Lindor for his far-better defense, but over such a small sample, I have a hard time putting too much stock in that.  Correa’s 22 home runs and 40 walks (to Lindor’s 12 and 27, respectively) give him the edge.  I also like picking the guy who seems to have the brighter future when the rookie year numbers are so similar.  Correa, by all accounts, is a superstar of the near future.

Sano gets the edge over Billy Burns for his big-time bat (151 wRC+).

NL Willie Mays Award

  1. Kris Bryant, Cubs
  2. Jung-ho Kang, Pirates
  3. Matt Duffy, Giants

Nothing much to see here. Bryant was a beast, hitting .275/.369/.488 with 26 homers and excellent third-base defense.  Kang hit 15 homers as the Pirates’ regular shortstop until a take-out slide ended his season early.  Duffy had good defensive numbers and batted .295, but with limited power and no patience.

The Cubs had two more contenders in Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber.  Noah Syndergaard was clearly the best rookie pitcher in either league and could easily have landed the second or third spot above.

 

AL Connie Mack Award (Top Manager)

  1. Paul Molitor, Twins
  2. Jeff Banister, Rangers
  3. AJ Hinch, Astros

I won’t tell you how many of these managers I had to look up.  As I’ve made clear in past years, I don’t delude myself into thinking I’m qualified to judge a manager’s effectiveness, but I’m happy to compare my preseason picks to actual results and jump to the conclusions that the managers whose teams most exceeded my expectations deserve all the credit.

In the AL, I basically got everything wrong, picking the Orioles, Red Sox, Indians, Angels, and Mariners to make the playoffs. Ned Yost and John Gibbons would make fine picks here, as I had both of their teams finishing right around .500 and both topped 90 wins.  Banister and Hinch must have done tremendous jobs, as I had those two teams in the last two spots in the AL West, as I thought the Astros needed one more year before contending and the Rangers seemed like a mess even before losing Yu Darvish.

The winner, though, has to be the guy who helmed the least talented team in baseball to an astonishing 83 wins in his first season at the helm.  I remember talking to a friend before the season about how wide open the American League appeared to be.  “Everyone’s going to win 87 games except the Twins,” we agreed.  Oops.

NL Connie Mack Award

  1. Joe Maddon, Cubs
  2. Terry Collins, Mets
  3. Mike Matheny, Cardinals

This league was far more predictable, with just these top two teams far exceeding my expectations.  I picked the NL Central in the right order, but I would have tabbed the Cubs for about 18 fewer wins than their 97 (and the Cards for several fewer than their 100, hence Matheny’s appearance).  It’s fashionable to give credit to Maddon, so that’s just what I’ll do.

I’m embarrassed to admit I had the Mets finishing behind the Marlins, but they didn’t seem to have much offense, and pitching depth wasn’t a particular strength before Thor showed up.  Collins was embarrassingly out-managed by Yost in the World Series, but this is  regular season award, and he got a lot out of the Mets.

 

AL Goose Gossage Award (Top Reliever)

  1. Wade Davis, Royals
  2. Dellin Betances, Yankees
  3. Andrew Miller, Yankees

I never would have guessed that Cody Allen led all relievers in fWAR this year at 2.6.  I’m not sure I care ether.  Allen’s 1.82 FIP is mighty impressive, but Davis gave up just eight runs in the same 69 innings, to Allen’s 26.  Betances was a very close second, having struck out 53 more batters than Davis (131 to 78), but he also walked twice as many (40 to 20) and gave up more than twice as many runs (17).  We shouldn’t attribute run prevention entirely to the pitcher, but Davis kept runners off the bases (.768 WHIP) and kept his ERA under 1 for a second straight year, something no other pitcher has ever done.

Miller gets the last spot by virtue of 100 strikeouts and a 1.90 ERA, though Zack Britton and Darren O’Day were equally great in Baltimore.

NL Goose Gossage Award

  1. Aroldis Chapman, Reds
  2. Ken Giles, Phillies
  3. Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals

Chapman was the only pitcher in either league- starter or reliever- with an ERA and a FIP under 2.  Sometimes the formula works.  Giles had a 1.80 ERA and 87 strikeouts to just 25 walks.  Rosenthal had a 2.10 ERA and 83 strikeouts vs. 25 walks for a team that almost inexplicably won 100 games.  Apologies to Jeurys Familia and Hector Rondon, who just missed.

 

Posted in Astros, Cubs, Postseason Awards, Reds, Royals, Twins | 2 Comments

NL Walter Johnson Award

This is the hard one.

In 2015, a National League pitcher had a 1.66 ERA, the best in either league since Greg Maddux’s 1.63 in an abbreviated 1995 season. The last ERA that low with as many innings pitched as his 222 2/3 was Dwight Gooden’s 1.53 in 1985.

In 2015, a National League pitcher struck out 301 batters, the most in either league since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2002. The last time someone struck out that many batters in as few innings as his 232 2/3 was Pedro Martinez in 1999.

In 2015, a third pitcher had a 1.77 ERA, the fourth best ERA since he was born in 1986. His second-half ERA of 0.75 was the best since Freddie Schupp’s 0.71 in 1916.

One of these guys has to be third on my ballot.

Here’s a fun exercise: Let’s pretend these three guys didn’t exist. A five-man ballot might look like this:

1. Max Scherzer (2.79 ERA, 2.77 FIP, 276 K, 3 CG w/1 hit or fewer)
2. Gerrit Cole (2.60 ERA, 2.66 FIP, ace of 97-win team)
3. Madison Bumgarner (2.93 ERA, 287 FIP, 5 HR as a batter)
4. Jacob deGrom (2.54 ERA, 2.70 FIP, co-ace of pennant winner)
5. Matt Harvey (2.71 ERA, 3.05 FIP, co-ace of pennant winner)

Even this list neglects great seasons from Jon Lester, Shelby Miller, Tyson Ross, and four Cardinals starters with ERAs of 3.03 or better. In a typical season, this would seem like a deep field, and that’s without the three transcendent pitchers I’m filibustering before debating. This probably says something about the quality of the National League in 2015, particularly of the eight sub-.500 teams, who were probably the eight worst teams in all of baseball. Regardless, the NL is full of aces right now and three of them stood out from this impressive pack.

Back to the good guys. Unless you stumbled upon this little corner of the internet while trying to replace the level in your toolbox, you probably know that the three men whose exploits are boasted above are Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, and Jake Arrieta, respectively. Every one of them deserves the Cy Young Award and the Walter Johnson Award and the Pedro Martinez Award (there must be one of these, right?) and the award that will someday be named after him because of how well he pitched in 2015.

In my post about the American League Walter Johnson Award, I noted the similarities between Dallas Keuchel and David Price, then parsed their numbers a little further and revealed that Keuchel, at least in my estimation, was the better pitcher. I’ll try to dig similarly deep with these three, but I fear that such analysis won’t reavel answers as much as it will expose biases. These guys dominated differently, and depending on how we measure pitching greatness, reasonable people will come to different conclusions as to who was the best.

Alas, here are two methods to try to separate these three pitchers: First, like I did in the AL, I’ll try to assign credit for certain outcomes among pitchers and fielders using fangraphs’ value metrics. Giving full credit for strikeouts, walks, and home runs, which comprise FIP wins, half credit for balls in play, which comprise BIP wins, and quarter credit for stranding runners, or LOB wins, the leaderboard looks like this:

Kershaw 8.675
Arrieta 8.525
Greinke 7.9
Scherzer 6.8
deGrom 5.525

All three top candidates look better by this method than they do if you simply look at fWAR and assume everything other than strikeouts, walks, and home runs should be attributed to defense and luck. They all had tremendous success on balls in play, from Kershaw’s .281 opponent BABIP (which translates to 1 additional win) to Arrieta’s .246 (2.9 wins) to Greinke’s hard-to-fathom .229 (4 wins, the most since Catfish Hunter’s 4.7 in 1975). All three are renowned for their defense, so at least a bit of that credit has to go to them. LOB wins were neutral to Greinke, though he stranded an impressive 86.5% of baserunners, while both Arrieta (80%) and Kershaw (78.3%) score negative runs by fangraphs’ LOB-wins metric, whether the result of sequencing luck or just randomness.

For what it’s worth, Baseball Reference saw the defense behind the two Dodgers pitchers as basically neutral (.02 runs), while Arrieta’s fielders were a little better (.09). Greinke led the trio, and all of baseball, in Defensive Runs Saved with nine, to Arrieta’s six and Kershaw’s five. These guys are good.

It’s hard to look at a 1.66-ERA season and claim the pitcher was lucky, but Greinke’s season appears to be a freak convergence of dominant pitching, excellent fielding from the pitcher and his defense, a lot of balls in play finding gloves rather than grass, and a very small percentage of baserunners finding their way home. Kershaw, in contrast, blew hitters away, but on the rare occasions when someone put the ball in play against him, he surrendered the occasional run, whether due to a loss of focus or to the random bunching of hits and outs.

A pitcher’s job is to put his team in position to win, but it’s well documented that wins and losses are the result of far more than a pitcher’s performance. Offense is half the game, and even on the defensive side, fielders deserve a significant portion of the credit for run prevention. One method of measuring dominance is Game Score, a Bill James-designed metric incorporating how long a pitcher lasts in a game, how many hits, walks, and runs he allows, and how many outs come by strikeout. While the hit and run components are fielding-dependent, much of what Game Score measures is the pitcher’s contribution to team success- getting outs (better if by strikeout), saving the bullpen, keeping runners off the bases.

What does Game Score think of our three protagonists? Here are their 2015 averages:

Kershaw 67.97
Arrieta 67.24
Greinke 67.06

That didn’t solve much. Let’s dig deeper.

According to this SABR piece by Jeff Angus from 2007, a team wins 79% of its games when its starter’s Game Score is within two points of 70. A team loses 81% of its games when the starter’s Game Score is within two points of 29. If we consider a Game Score of 70 or more an almost-guaranteed Win, 29 or worse an almost-guaranteed loss, and anything in between a toss-up, here’s how these three pitchers look:

(Guaranteed Wins-Tossups-Guaranteed Losses)
Kershaw 13-21-0
Greinke 12-21-0
Arrieta 17-17-0

Now we might have something. Arrieta practically guaranteed a win for the Cubs in half of his starts, and put them in a reasonable position to win the other half. Neither Kershaw nor Greinke laid an egg all year (each had a nadir of 33), but they both trailed Arrieta by a handful of dominant starts.

Let’s lower the bar just a bit, to 65 for a Win and 35 for a Loss:

Kershaw 18-14-2
Greinke 22-10-1
Arrieta 20-14-0

There’s Mr. Consistent again. Greinke topped 65 in two thirds of his starts and only once failed to break 35. In his worst start, he gave up five runs on ten hits in six innings. In Colorado. Arrieta looks great again, striking out seven is his worst start, a 5 1/3-inning loss at St. Louis in which he gave up five runs (four earned) on nine hits. Kershaw’s two rough starts early in the season are exposed, and he falls just short of the others in dominant outings.

Each of these methods, of course, has its faults. Game Score may assign too much credit for run prevention to the pitcher, just as fWAR almost certainly unfairly absolves the pitcher for BABIP and strand rate. Any hybrid approach to balancing DIPS theory and straight run prevention depends heavily on how much each side is weighted. We know Kershaw was the best in the league at striking guys out and not walking them (he always is). We know Greinke was the best at keeping runs off the board (though Arrieta was really close while pitching his home games in a more hitter-friendly environment). How much we weight those two measures of success is a matter of personal preference.

A vote for Arrieta seems to me to be a cop-out. “I can’t put all my eggs in the run prevention basket because of all the randomness and I can’t care entirely about strikeouts and walks because the other stuff matters too, so I’ll go with the guy in the middle”. But that’s not fair to Arrieta, who had a ridiculously good season by any measure. If Arrieta wins the Walter Johnson or the Cy Young or both, he’ll absolutely deserve it. It will only feel like a travesty because of the two Dodger aces who won’t win.

Maybe all this comes down to is avoiding that travesty. If Jake Arrieta doesn’t win, it will be because another guy had a better ERA or because another guy had a better FIP. If Zack Greinke doesn’t win the award, we’ll look back and wonder how that happened to the guy with the best ERA since Maddux. If Clayton Kershaw doesn’t win, we’ll look back and wonder how that happened to the guy who struck out 300 when we never thought anyone else would do that again.

It’s taken me a day and a half to write this post, and at various points, each guy has had be convinced that he was the best of the three. This is it. No more stalling. No more equivocating. Here’s my ballot.

(reads the whole piece again)

(consults fangraphs one more time)

(calls his mother. cries a little)

1. Jake Arrieta
2. Clayton Kershaw
3. Zack Greinke
4. Max Scherzer
5. Gerrit Cole

What a travesty.

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2015 AL Walter Johnson Award

Much like the award for position players, the 2015 AL Walter Johnson Award is a two-horse race. While David Price pitched well for the Tigers before leading the Blue Jays to a division title after his July trade, Dallas Keuchel established his dominance early and pitched well all year as the Astros ended their own playoff drought.

220.1 IP, 225 K, 47 BB, 2.45 ERA, 2.78 FIP
232 IP, 216 K, 51 BB, 2.48 ERA, 2.91 FIP

There’s not much to distinguish between these two lines. Price is on top, with a few more strikeouts, four fewer walks, and slight edges in both ERA and FIP. Keuchel wins the volume award, throwing almost 12 more innings without sacrificing much quality.

Another edge for Keuchel is that he only gave up four unearned runs, to Price’s ten. This is reflected in his superior RA9, giving him a bigger edge in baseball reference’s version of WAR (7.2 to 6.0) than Price holds per fangraphs (6.4 to 6.1).

One way to reconcile FIP-based WAR to RA9-based WAR is to look at the three components of RA9 WAR that fangraphs tracks and try to allocate credit for each between a pitcher and his fielders. By giving the pitcher full credit for the strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed that comprise his FIP wins, half credit for BIP (balls in play) wins, and quarter credit for LOB (left on base) wins, we arrive at the following leaderboard:

Keuchel 6.95
Price 6.625
Sale 5.4
Kluber 5.2
Archer 5.05
Gray 4.8

Keuchel’s opponent BABIP of .269 was fifth-best in the American League. While much of this is attributable to his teammates and to the randomness of balls in play, Keuchel is an excellent fielder himself, so he deserves some credit for this. Keuchel also stranded 79.4% of baserunners, the league’s third-best figure. While Price’s 78.6% strand rate is close behind, his .290 BABIP is closer to the middle of the pack.

Price was better at the things I care about most- striking out batters and limiting walks- but Keuchel was among the best pitchers in the league at basically everything, including volume. That’s a Walter Johnson Award winner.

There’s at least one more conversation worth having as it pertains to this ballot. There seem to be four types of players worth considering:

1. the real contenders- Keuchel and Price
2. the high-K guys whose ERAs don’t match their FIPs- Sale, Kluber, and Archer
3. the low-ERA guys whose FIPs are uninspiring- Gray and maybe Estrada
4. historically dominant relievers

No full-time reliever pitched more than 90 innings, while every starter mentioned above pitched more than 200, so accumulated value metrics won’t support the candidacy of a reliever. Win Probability Added, though, tells another story:

Betances 4.24
A. Miller 4.22
W. Davis 4.22
Keuchel 3.85

Now, WPA may be as biased toward guys who work almost exclusively in high-leverage situations as WAR is toward innings-eating starters, but this is another way of looking at value and it loves three relievers. Betances threw 84 innings with a 1.50 ERA and more than 14 strikeouts per nine innings. Miller had a 1.90 ERA with an even higher strikeout rate (14.59/9 IP). Davis had a sub-1 ERA (0.94) for the second straight year, allowing 8 total runs in 67 1/3 innings. Yankees and Royals games seemed shorter than ever, particularly when a lead was handed over to these guys.

In a year with several great starters, I would be reluctant to include a reliever on a five-man ballot. This year, I’m including two.

1. Keuchel
2. Price
3. Sale
4. Betances
5. Davis

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